The U.S. women’s soccer team enters the 2015 World Cup as a dancing, music-loving, joking cast of extroverts on the team bus, but as revenge-seeking marauders on the field.
More on the fun later. First, the hunger games.
They are, to a woman, driven by what happened in the 2011 World Cup – giving away two late leads in an embittering loss to Japan on penalty kicks.
“I’m still not over it,” midfielder Tobin Heath confesses.
“It was heartbreaking and extremely devastating,” adds forward Alex Morgan. “It took me a long time to get over it, to close that door. But now a new door has opened.”
Call it the attic door of sorts, as the American women climb into their continental roof to play World Cup games in neighboring Canada.
Primer: Women's World Cup and when USA plays
Team USA opens Monday against a tough group with Australia, ranked No. 10 in the world.
The next game is against No. 5 Sweden, coached by Pia Sundhage, a Swede who was the American head coach from 2008 to 2011.
The Americans’ last contest is against No. 33 Nigeria.
Now coaching the American team is Jill Ellis, who was born in England and played college soccer in America at William & Mary.
Ellis wrangles a charismatic group of American superstars ranked No. 2 in the world, behind Germany.
’For an entire nation that cheered us’
The new coach’s top offensive weapon is familiar, reliable, and deadly: Abby Wambach.
Wambach is America’s most prolific international goal scorer in history, man or woman, with 182 goals.
Cordial and polite, she looks at you through blue eyes that seem suited for a sniper’s eyepiece.
“This isn’t just for us, it’s for an entire nation,” Wambach said. “It’s for an entire nation that cheered us on four years ago. It’s an opportunity for us to prove that cheering for us is the right move.”
The mutual admiration between the American players and their adoring legion of fangirls can be seen and heard at every game.
Signs with hearts and American flags proclaim the support.
And then there are these shrieking, loud piercing squeals that make bystanders cover their ears.
“Abby!” “Megan (Rapinoe)!” “Alex!” Those are the names shouted by girls whose faces are painted red, white and blue.
The lovable name-calling will no doubt ring out when the U.S. plays its first two group games in Winnipeg and the third in Vancouver.
“I kind of feel Canada is a home World Cup,” Morgan said, “because we are going to have so many fans there.”
Perils of synthetic turf
All teams must make adjustments in Canada, as none of the games will be played on a blade of grass, but on the fibers of synthetic fields.
“You need to put on compression shorts or leggings, or you need to put Vaseline on your knees because you are going to get turf burns,” Morgan said.
“The ball bounces very different. You are going to be a little more cautious with your tackles, because your legs are going to get beat up,” she added.
Morgan is already beaten up, suffering from a knee injury that could keep her on the sidelines for the Australia opener.
But Wambach thinks the United States offers many terrific substitution options.
“We have the ability to go down the bench and fix the problems we had in the first half, in the second,” she said.
And Hope Solo, arguably the best goalie in the world, a best-selling author, a “Dancing with the Stars” alumna and a drama lightning rod, is feeling upbeat.
“We’re peaking at the right time, you can feel the energy and the excitement,” she said.
Fighting over who’s the hottest guy
After the 2011 World Cup final, Solo received the Golden Glove award for best goalie in the tournament and cried openly, mourning the loss of the championship.
The image is a monumental contrast to the current sight of smiling Americans, with an absurd amount of players who look like they’re on loan from toothpaste commercials, getting on the team bus in Winnipeg for lively debates.
“We fight over music, dance styles, who is the hottest guy, you name it,” Solo says.
Sydney Leroux, the flashy American forward born in Canada, reveals she used to be in charge of team USA’s music.
“But people cut me off because I like my music and I want everyone else to. I think I have good taste, I love Beyonce, J. Cole, Drake,” she said.
If there were a hippie-era theme song for this team, it might be revamped to “she ain’t heavy, she’s my sister.”
“The sport of soccer in general is very combative,” Heath says. “People don’t realize it’s very one-on-one a lot of times.
“We see this in practice as well. What’s so special about our team is we kick each other on the field. And off the field, we are picking each other up.”